In Uganda we play, pray and politic too much


By Nicholas Sengoba


Last week ended on a prayerful note. Uganda, for the fourth time in a year since the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, held national prayers beseeching the Lord to come to our rescue in what is turning out to be one of the greatest tests of our times as a nation.


Nothing, not even the endless wars we have fought since Independence in 1962, has brought Uganda as a whole to a standstill like Covid-19 has done. No travel, no school, no work, no social gatherings, no worship.


So many things have changed, that it is now inconsiderate to shake hands, visit or attend a wedding and a funeral of a loved one.


Covid-19 spreads so fast and stealthily that it is best everyone stays away from everyone.


The lockdown is justifiable thus far. But then life must go on. Covid-19 is going to live with us for a long time. We have no option but to learn to live with the pandemic.


Just like life itself, there are many realities we run away from or shield ourselves from because they are stark and too much to bear. But they always come and impose themselves on us as lessons. They became blessings that make us prosper or curses that make us perish. It is about how we approach them.


One stark reality that Covid-19 has brought to the forefront is that Uganda, like many other countries, is extremely vulnerable and hapless in the face of shocks that go beyond the mundane.


Our healthcare system and especially the hospital infrastructure does not have the capacity to withstand the weight of a full-blown pandemic.


It is now much easier for a hunchbacked camel to go through an eye of a needle than to find a free (as in unoccupied) intensive care unit (ICU) bed in the whole country.


Even when one gets that now precious contraption, he or she will be lucky to be guaranteed costly oxygen supply for the entire stay in the ICU.


For many years we took these things lightly as many could easily jump onto a plane and access better facilities outside Uganda instead of hanging around and dying like the rest of us.


One even said ‘someone may steal money for a hospital and he builds a factory. Factory may serve nation better than a hospital.’


In other words we have taken it as normal to trade social services for primitive personal aggrandizement.


The trouble is that now many people have money but they have nowhere to spend it to save their own lives. The covid-19 pandemic has posed an existential threat to our lives and we are clueless of how to get on top of the situation. That is why we are now praying.


In most Ugandan cultures and speak, when one reaches the point of no return they say ‘he needs prayers only, the rest has failed.’


The donors have always chipped in to save us which bestowed on us a misguided sense of entitlement. We are now complaining that they have not given us vaccines. Like Chinua Achebe said ‘Africa is neither Motherland or Fatherland, it is childland.’ So spoilt we have become that we cannot even change our diapers.


I recall at the beginning of the pandemic a musician and a journalist, who are great supporters of the NRM government, went to Mulago Hospital.


They took pictures and videos for the playful political benefit of social media showing empty hospital beds in the ICU and other areas. In the realm of their competence they claimed that Uganda was ready to handle the Covid-19 pandemic.


Then they preposterously claimed that NRM government has done so many nice things but does not show them off. Their reasoning was put down to the Opposition and people who don’t wish the government well hiding the good away.


The fish that are in the water and know the crocodile well i.e. the doctors and health professionals who have for donkey years been complaining of understaffing, shortage of equipment, protective gear, medicine, space, remuneration etc. begged to differ.


Now we have this pandemic to test the pudding. You cannot use propaganda and cheap talk to make oxygen appear out of the blue. Neither can praise singing or obsequiousness produce ICU beds out of the blue. You can’t chest thump about crashing Covid-19 and it vanishes under the specter of the stories of your war victories in the past.


These things have to be on the ground and they are not there. If they were there, not even the most vocal and hateful Opposition would wipe them out.


The Covid-19 pandemic is an opportunity which we seem to be wasting. During the first lockdown in 2020 we had the choice to right the wrongs. Buy more beds, embark on training more health workers and focus on remunerating and motivating them well. Building more hospitals and management systems.


Instead it has been business as usual if not worse. We still have a few hundred ICU beds and have lost many health workers, including highly trained specialists.


We can’t account for moneys borrowed and donated to the cause. We are still in the crude mindset of supporting individuals to steal from society hoping that they will come back as reformed Robin Hoods. Thieves have no scruples.


Just praying for miracles will not help. At times like this a country needs its Prophets following in the footsteps of Elijah (1 Kings 21:1-16) to go and tell King Ahab that he had sinned terribly by killing Naboth in order to take his vineyard.


Museveni needs to be told that Uganda is paying the costly price for the perpetuation of his government. That is the voice of the people. That is the voice of God.


Mr Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues


This article was published by the Daily Monitor.